Austrian psychologist, researcher, zoologist, and pioneer ethnologist Konrad Lorenz transformed his lifelong fascination for animals into a Nobel Prize winning career and profoundly influence the field of animal psychology by demonstrating the strength of instinct in determining animal behavior.
Born in 1903, Lorenz received a doctorate in medicine in deference to his father’s wishes but, driven by his passion for animals, returned to school for a second doctorate in zoology. Throughout his career as a researcher Lorenz studied social and behavioral patterns in animals and, later in his life, humans as well. Lorenz studied instinctive behaviors and labored to emphasize the existence and strength of ingrained, “hardwired” action sequences in determining animal behaviors and contributing to the successful survival of species.
Lorenz’s study of behavioral patterns made him one of the founding fathers of the field of ethology, or the study of behavioral patterns in and across species. Lorenz’s studies in particular focused on jackdaws and Graylag geese and, along with colleagues and fellow ethologists Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl Von Frisch, won the 1973 Nobel Prize.
The primary accomplishments of Lorenz’s career most famously include the rediscovery of imprinting, a behavioral phenomenon exhibited in some bird species. Imprinting had been originally described by Douglas Spalding in the 19th century but the concept had lapsed into obscurity until Lorenz highlighted the peculiar behavior of young birds. Imprinting refers to the tendency of young birds within a specific developmental window to imprint or bond with the first moving object that they see – typically their mother, who provides for their survival.
Lorenz additionally studied and advocated for the importance of instinctive behaviors, which he described as “fixed action patterns.” Fixed action patterns, in opposition to more flexible learned behaviors, are rigid behaviors that cannot be broken down into component parts. Lorenz argued that these action patterns were produced by an innate neural network in response to particular stimuli and functioned as sequenced actions that, once elicited, ran from beginning to end without deviation. Examples of such fixed action patterns include mating and threat displays in birds as well as returning eggs to the nest. These hard-wired responses tend to be of evolutionary significance to species; since flexible behaviors are typically more conducive to survival, Lorenz determined that predictable, inflexible responses must underlie behavior that is vital to survival.
The great legacies of Lorenz’s lengthy career were his emphasis on the existence and evolutionary and behavioral importance of certain hardwired, immutable instinctive behaviors. Lorenz’s identification of specific ingrained behaviors as proved important in the understanding of behaviors rooted in instinct versus behaviors molded through learning. His work has been foundational in understanding and training animals. Interestingly, Lorenz conducted the bulk of his research through observation alone. When he did perform research, he endeavored to research within natural settings rather than contrived settings. Lorenz is hailed by animal-welfare and animal-rights advocates for his non-intrusive models for studying animal behavior.